Reflections on the Anniversary of the PES Refinery Explosion

One year ago, Philadelphia was rocked by an explosion at the PES refinery. On the anniversary, we consider the local risks inherent in our energy system and the inequity that often accompanies it.

This Sunday marks one year since a catastrophic leak, and subsequent ignition, of flammable process fluids caused a series of explosions in the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) Refinery’s hydrofluoric acid alkylation unit. The last and most violent of these explosions occurred when a feed drum, containing primarily butylene, isobutane, and butane, ruptured, catapulting a 38,000-pound fragment of the drum to the other side of the Schuylkill river, nearly half a mile away. Unbelievably, raining chunks of steel the size of school buses was far from the highest risk imposed on nearby Philly neighborhoods that early morning. It is estimated that more than 3,000 pounds of hydrofluoric acid (HF) was released to the atmosphere during this incident. 

HF is a highly corrosive and biologically destructive acid that can cause severe irritation, skin burns, bronchitis, or bone damage when ingested, inhaled, or absorbed. Just 20 mg of HF/kg of body weight is considered a lethal dose. Fortunately, the quick thinking and actions of refinery operators on site that morning ensured that additional bulk storage of HF was moved away from the exlosions and was safely contained. Furthermore, seemingly by nothing more than dumb luck, the trajectory of the explosion and prevailing winds meant that nearby communities were not exposed to high levels of HF and no one in the community is known to have suffered severe effects of acid exposure, although there were reports of eye and throat irritation by residents of nearby neighborhoods in the days following the explosion. 

This accident, which hastened what was already a probable bankruptcy declaration by PES, could have killed hundreds if not thousands of people and is a valuable reminder of the risks inherent in our current energy system. In this time of rapid technological development and energy system transition, it is easy to become fixated on the carbon content of fossil fuels and the varying impacts our energy sources have on the trajectory of climate change. However, episodes like the PES explosions last summer, the even more recent fires at refineries in Los Angeles and Baton Rouge, or the ecologically devastating Norilsk oil spill earlier this month highlight the rampant unsustainability of our dependence on toxic and combustible hydrocarbons.

Eliminating carbon emissions from our energy system is one of the most critically important objectives of this generation. However, this does not mean that falling carbon emissions needs to be our only measure of success as we transform our use and production of energy. Natural gas, for example, burns relatively cleanly but can still blow up a half-dozen South Philadelphia row houses. 

To ignore the local risks and adverse effects of our energy system is to ignore many of the most pressing instances of inequity and environmental injustice in our society. Most of us never have to think twice about the safety risks inherent in our energy system, because this burden falls on populations who depend on local ecology to survive,—who are forced to live in close proximity to polluting or potentially dangerous energy infrastructure, or who lack the litigative strength to take on energy producers and distributors. Climate change is, of course, also a social justice issue on a global scale which is why it is so critical that our energy transition considers both the global and local effects of our energy use.

All energy infrastructure comes with local trade-offs, from the damage caused to river ecology and local fishing communities by hydroelectric power, to the high-impact-low-probability threat posed by early nuclear reactor designs still in use around the world. However, the use of some resources (e.g. solar and wind) have far less severe local impacts than others (e.g. coal and oil). Even hydroelectric and nuclear power can be designed in such a way as to dramatically reduce the risks and impacts imposed on local communities.

The energy transition requires a dramatic shift in the way we think about, use, and generate energy, and we need to consider all of its long-term implications, both local and global, if we are going to build a just and sustainable energy future. As we look toward the somewhat uncertain future of the former PES property, one year after the accident, we need to hold its new owner— Hilco Redevelopment Partners—accountable for repurposing this land in a way that furthers the city’s commitments to both reduce carbon emissions and protect its most vulnerable communities.

*An earlier version of this blog post did not acknowledge the important role of refinery operators in mitigating the risks posed by these explosions. The blog was updated on June 22nd to reflect this critical piece of the story. 

Oscar Serpell

Associate Director of Academic Programming
Oscar Serpell oversees student engagement activities, new student programming, and alumni connections. He also participates in several key research projects at the center and also writes blog posts and policy digests on timely energy policy topics.